UPDATE: Warren Fernandez, ST editor and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings’ English/Malay/Tamil Media Group, commented on the outcome of the case.
A Housing and Development Board (HDB) officer who leaked details of a confidential HDB project to a Straits Times (ST) reporter was fined a maximum of $2,000 on Wednesday (20 December) for breaching the Official Secrets Act.
Ng Han Yuan, 25, an estate manager in the resale operations section of HDB’s estate administration and property group, pleaded guilty to one count of revealing confidential information to Janice Tai Jia Ling, 29, who was covering the social affairs beat at ST at the time.
Ng remains suspended from his duties at HDB, while Tai has been let off by the police with a warning. Appearing in court with his parents and church friends, Ng was dressed in a blazer and remained expressionless as the sentence was read out.
Addressing the press outside the State Courts, Ng said that his offence was an “honest mistake” and that he was grateful that the court imposed a fine rather than a jail term. He added that he hopes to continue working at HDB.
“I let my guard down and inadvertently gave information to someone that I considered a personal friend… I never intended for the information to be used as a story,” said Ng.
According to court documents, the leaked details were related to the planned streamlining of resale transactions, which had not been made public at the time, and Ng revealed the information to Tai despite knowing that she was a reporter.
Anatomy of a leak
Ng and Tai first met on mobile dating app Coffee Meets Bagel sometime in March this year. They began to chat on WhatsApp and subsequently became friends who would meet up about once a fortnight. In April, Ng was assigned to the HDB project team.
As the pair celebrated Ng’s birthday on 31 May, they discussed Ng’s work. Ng revealed details about the project, including the reduction in resale transaction time, changes to the flat valuation process and an online portal for loan and eligibility services.
Tai asked Ng if she could run a story on the project, but Ng declined as the information was confidential.
On 16 July this year, Tai asked Ng via WhatsApp for more information about the project, and Ng obliged.
A day later, Tai sent an e-mail directing specific questions about the project to the Singapore Institute of Surveyors & Valuers (SISV). The institution later notified HDB about the e-mail. HDB also received an e-mail of the same nature from Tai on 18 July.
As the e-mails contained confidential information, HDB made a police report about a suspected leak. Consequently, HDB expedited its press release on the project, bringing it forward to 19 October even though the project was due for launch in January 2018.
Need to send a ‘message’: DPP
The prosecution, represented by Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Kumaresan Gohulabalan, sought the maximum fine of $2,000 while Ng’s lawyer asked for a $1,000 fine.
The DPP said that Ng revealed information to Tai despite knowing her intentions as a reporter.
He added that Ng had initially concealed his involvement during HDB’s internal investigations. HDB was also significantly inconvenienced and had to bring forward the announcement of the project, said Kumaresan.
“A message needs to be sent that unauthorised disclosure of confidential information must be met with appropriate action,” said the prosecution.
In mitigation, Cheng said that his client had harboured hopes of a relationship with Tai as the two had met over a platform where users match with potential partners.
The two had met a few times and grown closer before Ng revealed the information during a “social situation” said the lawyer, who was referring to Ng’s birthday celebration with Tai.
Cheng noted that the information Ng shared with Tai at that time was subsequently disclosed without Ng’s approval. The lawyer said that Ng did not intend any mischief and did not benefit from disclosing the information.
It took everything in Ng’s power to maintain the confidentiality of the information, said the lawyer. Cheng added that the leak did not have as “far-reaching consequences”.
Ng could have been jailed up to two years and fined up to $2,000 for the offence.
Commenting on the case, ST editor and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings’ English/Malay/Tamil Media Group Warren Fernandez said that it was a “difficult day” for everyone in the media industry.
“The OSA is a wide, sweeping law, covering all manner of government information. Like it or not, our journalists have had to navigate this difficult terrain, and we give our full support to all of them in doing their jobs on behalf of the paper,” he said.
“In the same way, we stand by our colleague, Janice Tai, who was pursuing information for a story with the knowledge and backing of her supervisors.”
Fernandez said SPH will take some time to review the case and draw lessons on how best the company can continue to play its role in the industry.